In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
That was always one of my favorite poems as a kid. Of course, I didn’t know what happened once he had crossed that ocean. Turns out, when he arrived in Hispaniola – which he thought was India – he committed genocide. In fact, Columbus served as the model for centuries of massacre and exploitation of indigenous Americans. On Monday, Amherst has graciously granted us a day off from class to celebrate his accomplishments.
Of course, Columbus Day is more geared towards acknowledging his “discovery” of the continent, not his violent interactions with native peoples. But historical research has shown us that Columbus was not the first person to “discover” America – he wasn’t even the first European. In fact, this idea of discovery is also invalid, as the 50+ million indigenous inhabitants certainly knew about its existence.
On Columbus Day, we’re presented with a whitewashed and regurgitated history that hasn’t been reevaluated for more than a hundred years. Advocates for the holiday argue that it was originally a celebration of immigrants. But the true purpose of the holiday is one of nativist patriotism. It was spread throughout the country by Francis Bellamy, the same man who created the Pledge of Allegiance to “inoculate” the United States from the “virus” of radicalism and subversion.
Bellamy once wrote that “a democracy like ours cannot afford to throw itself open to the world where every man is a lawmaker, every dull-witted or fanatical immigrant admitted to our citizenship is a bane to the commonwealth; where all classes of society merge insensibly into one another. Every alien immigrant or inferior race may bring corruption to the stock. […] There are other races which we cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard, which should be as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.” Columbus Day wasn’t pro-immigration, it was pro-white America.
Although, unlike Columbus, Bellamy didn’t actually commit genocide. In the late 20th century, historians began to examine Columbus’ voyages more critically, and have brought to light the numerous atrocities he and his followers committed. Bartolome de las Casas, a Franciscan priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba, later recounted the crimes of the Spaniards: “Our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy. [We] thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Many scholars now estimate that in the 16 years between 1492 and 1508, the native population of Hispaniola dropped from 8 million to 100,000.
Thus, the celebration of Columbus Day is a celebration of genocide. Activist Ward Churchill goes even further than that, however, arguing that “the situation of American Indians will not — in fact cannot — change for the better so long as attitudes [disregarding the slaughter of indigenous Americans] are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.” In order for the campaign for Native American rights to truly gain steam in American society, that society must first cease its glorification of Columbus.
It seems to me that Amherst is very aware of the offensiveness of Columbus Day. This is why our short long weekend is officially known as a Midterm Break, and colloquially as Fall Break. Very intentionally, there is no mention of Columbus. But this doesn’t serve to reject the common American narrative of Columbus as a valorous explorer and savior. Instead, it removes a space for discussion and critical analysis of both Columbus himself and his crimes in a cultural context.
There are two ways Amherst can approach this weekend in the future if it wants to openly oppose Columbus’ legacy. The first is to acknowledge Columbus Day, but declare that we are receiving time off in celebration of the simultaneous Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as the cities of Berkeley, Minneapolis, Seattle, and St. Paul have done, as well as the state of South Dakota and numerous other cities, municipalities and universities across the country. The other is to move Fall Break to a different weekend in the future. This would represent an obvious rejection of Columbus Day, and a show of solidarity with Amherst’s native students.
Then again, Amherst’s similar lack of a rejection of Lord Jeff shows how far the school has to go in order to reach that solidarity.